TV Binge: Never Have I Ever (Season 1, 2020)

Never Have I Ever (Season 1, 2020)

Never Have I Ever

Creators: Lang Fisher & Mindy Kaling

Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Darren Barnet, Jaren Lewison, Poorna Jagannathan, Lee Rodriguez, Ramona Young, Richa Moorjani, Niecy Nash, Adam Shapiro

The complicated life of a modern-day first generation Indian American teenage girl, inspired by Mindy Kaling’s own childhood. – IMDB

While I haven’t been following Mindy Kaling’s career and probably only have seen one movie with her (Ocean’s Eight) and haven’t been exposed to her humor a lot, Never Have I Ever has a fun and unique script and layout. For one, a lot of shows that puts together cultural background with teenage coming of age do create a good effect. This show is no exception. When you look at the different elements of this teen coming of age comedy, there’s a lot to love.

For one, the script itself really brings these characters alive. Its not only Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) who has her spotlight even if she is a major focal as this season focuses heavily on her desire to be different whether its acting out from a deeper issue stemmed from her father’s death. At the same time, her two best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) have their own unique quirkiness that makes the three of them really fun to watch together. Much like the two boys, Paxton (Darren Barnet) and Ben (Jaren Lewison) which also have their differences that separate them significantly as they start stepping more into Devi’s life. However, the show is much more than that as the cultural elements come with majorly with Devi and her family which consists of her mother and her pretty older cousin. As she navigates through school, family, grief, friends and boys, her life is narrated charmingly by John McEnroe with a special episode narrated by Andy Samberg for an episode focused on Ben. A great part of the series charm and humor does come from these voice-over bits as they are a little sarcastic, judgmental and analytical of the whole situation.

The main plot of the story with Devi almost links to films like The Edge of Seventeen (review) where it focuses on a high school girl trying to pursue a school hot guy to lose her virginity where Devi is in the same situation where she tries to break out of her nerdy and invisible presence at school with her friends and try to start the school year after a year of being mysteriously handicapped as her body’s defense mechanism after her father’s death, making her having the wrong kind of spotlight. With that mind, the three set out to pursue the good-looking popular guys which gives revelations on multiple levels as Fabiola embraces her sexual orientation while Devi starts building affections that exceed that of pure appearances as she starts to know Paxton more but also getting to find the points that she can connect with her school competition Ben. Much like Paxton and Ben also have their own set of issues with their own lives. Each of these characters are full of personality as they start to revealing them bit by bit giving them a lot more substance.

What makes them more relatable is that they aren’t perfect especially when looking at Devi who makes some of the worst judgment calls. It all builds up from her sessions with her psychiatrist which highlights the unsolved issues she has as she still hasn’t completely coped with the loss of her father which also has its weight especially in the family segments particularly her conversations with her mother. The family segments giving a lot of weight as it brings in a more dramatic side which definitely hits Devi harder especially with her mother (Poorna Jagannathan) while with her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), its more of an envious side as she believes that her beauty covers up how nerdy she is which is something that she doesn’t think that she has. Devi turns into a rather unlikeable character at one part and needs to slowly redeem herself and these moments are constructed really well much like the character’s development all progress consistently and does make sense.

In many ways, Never Have I Ever’s first season is a pretty fun season to build a foundation for the show. The characters are built up well and there’s a good sense of how the relationships and chemistry with everyone as they can easily develop further from where they end at this point. Running at 10 episodes, Never Have I Ever is absolutely binge-worthy as its both fun and comedic. It has a really strong script giving a lot of memorable characters. There are some very awkward moments but then it does feel normal for a bunch of awkward teens making questionable decisions. Plus, while its mostly about an Indian American teenage girl acting out and pissing everyone off (its literally the title of one of the episodes), the story has a lot of depth and meaningful moments as it also deals with family, grief and loss which definitely adds to the whole story.

TV Binge: Julie and the Phantoms (Season 1, 2020)

Julie and the Phantoms (Season 1, 2020)

Creators: Dan Cross & David Hoge

Cast: Madison Reyes, Charlie Gillespie, Owen Joyner, Jeremy Shada, Jadah Marie, Sacha Carlson, Savannah Lee May, Carlos Ponce, Booboo Stewart, Sonny Bustamante, Cheyenne Jackson

Julie is a teenage girl who finds her passion for music and life with the help of a high -concept band of teen boys (The Phantoms) who have been dead for 25 years. Julie, in turn, helps them become the band they were never able to be. – IMDB

Based on the Brazilian TV series Julie e os Fantasmas, Julie and the Phantoms is a musical comedy drama that tells the story of a girl who is able to make 3 teenage ghosts that died 25 years ago visible to everyone whenever they play music together and hence brought about the their band, Julie and the Phantoms. Running at 9 episodes, there’s a lot to love about Julie and the Phantoms whether from the teenage content or the ghost element and especially the musical and band elements. There’s a little bit of romance, family and friendship and talks about loss and dreams and finding the courage to face it all. All in all, Julie and the Phantoms might have some plot points that seem a tad far-fetched but overall, its feel-good element really lands on such positive notes making it quite a binge-worthy experience.

Looking at the young cast, they are all fairly new to acting. With a lot of musical sort of shows or movies, it has a little overacting element however, the band when with each other feels mostly like the characters do fit themselves. The main actress is Madison Reyes who plays Julie, a girl trying to embrace music again after her mother’s passing. Trying to balance being okay for her family and  having the courage to follow her dreams with the help of the band, Madison Reyes does a really good job capturing the role and also showing her musical talents of singing. Playing opposite her are the 3 ghost boys from the Sunset Curve: Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Joyner) and Reggie (Jeremy Shada),who have personalities that balance each other which makes each of them stand out and each having their own issues although this season was mostly focused on Luke and building up the chemistry he has with Julie. An overall success for the two as they have some great moments together which is not physical but just through looks and conversation.

The story and the narrative does a good layout for the first season. It gives a good foundation and lays out the scene for both the key characters of Julie and her high school scene along with her family and also, gives a look at the ghost side of things and how this world’s ghosts work (which takes a twist at the finale and gives a set up for the second season). In terms of the songs, every episode has at least one musical offering which aligns with the plot and mostly is fun and positive sort of songs especially with its lyrics. They each have their own fun and are pretty catchy overall.

Overall, Julie and the Phantoms for the first season is a fun show. As a teen show, its pretty good. There are some issues probably in terms of over the top acting in certain parts but its feel-good elements and the fun and catchy songs does cover over a lot of its flaws. It does help that I’m a big fan of these types of shows plus its well-paced and the episodes are relatively short so the first season is definitely a breeze to binge. Definitely one that comes highly recommended for myself (seeing as I’ve rewatched the season a few times at this point since its launch and enjoy it equally as much every time) especially for fans of teen shows and musicals. With that said, I can’t wait for the second season whenever it will be released.

Double Feature: Beyond The Lights (2014) & Yes God Yes (2019)

Welcome to the next double feature! This time, we’re looking at two films that feel like they don’t really have anything to do with each other except perhaps that they both feature a female lead as its main character and both also has female directors. The first is a 2014 romance-drama called Beyond the Lights and the second is 2019’s teen comedy-drama Yes God Yes.

Let’s check it out!

Beyond The Lights (2014)

Director (and writer): Gina Prince-Bythewood

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Machine Gun Kelly, Danny Glover

The pressures of fame have superstar singer Noni on the edge, until she meets Kaz, a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be. – IMDB

Movies about singers who are trying to break out their set path to follow their own voice and setting it as a romantic drama isn’t exactly a unique premise. Beyond The Lights is very similar in that it sets out with a popular singer who goes back to her hotel room and ends up being found by a cop who is hired security sitting on the ledge of her balcony, seeming like she wants to jump. A cry for help that ends up being ignored except for the cop who reaches out to her and as they get closer, starts to give her to courage to be herself. In fact, Beyond The Lights is rather formulaic in the way that the whole story is executed. However, the whole beginning kickstarts the issue very quickly and is paced rather well to keep the two main characters to build in friendship and chemistry. At the same time also adding some more characters that are opposing to her new affections or choices like her manager and mother and a PR arranged relationship with a popular rapper. It creates enough conflict to pull the pieces together and build up a decent story.

Its really hard to discuss Beyond The Lights, mostly because this type of film is rather simplistic for the most part. The premise is rather formulaic and there is no doubt that the same formula is applied here. However, the standout point here is that they have a decent cast. The best one that holds the film together is the main actress playing Noni, the star of the show played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who delivers a great performance. Playing opposite her is the cop Kaz played by Nate Parker, whom I haven’t seen anywhere before but has a decent chemistry with Noni even if his character does feel a little hollow in comparison. His main purpose is to be the motivation for Noni that sets her out of this breaking point and have the courage to set out on the path that she wants. Aside from that, playing manager mom is Minnie Driver who delivers a good performance as well. I sometimes feel that Minnie Driver is rather underrated especially as she shows up in some of the most unexpected movies every once in a while (at least on my watch list).

To be fair, I watched this movie because of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and because she delivers a strong performance, Beyond The Lights was a decent watch. It is a fairly predictable type of film and didn’t exactly feel like it landed in terms of being as touching as it should be but the movie does start off on the right foot especially on a scene so strong as being pushed to wanting to commit suicide despite all the attention around her but having no one really notice it. Because of that overall, the film is decent but the beginning is much stronger then the rest of the film. While there is some good chemistry and decent acting, it still feels familiar. Bottomline: if you like these types of movies, this one does a great job and is well worth of a watch and if you don’t, then just skip it as it probably won’t offer you anything too different in terms of premise.

Yes God Yes (2019)

Director (and writer): Karen Maine

Cast: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz, Francesca Reale, Susan Blackwell, Alisha Boe, Donna Lynne Champlin, Parker Wierling, Allison Shrum, Matt Lewis

After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation. – IMDB

Yes God Yes is a fun comedy movie with a coming to age angle to it when a Catholic teenager is torn between her religious upbringings and her newly discovered sexual urges. From a good girl that everyone seems to blend in, she starts off being caught in a rumor that is a complete lie but tears apart some of her friendships before heading to church camp where she gets attracted to one of the camp counselors while being told how she should act in light of the religious belief. The whole concept is a lot of fun and a really great premise especially since it shows the shock of the first online encounter of someone sharing racy pictures as a teenager while at the same time, having that as a first step into something that no one around her talks about or when is talked about is considered to be wrong. However, the whole journey of the movie reveals that perhaps the people around her is rather hypocritical especially the people who emphasizes that sexual acts are wrong. Its a good end-game and message for the whole story that it wants to tell here.

There’s quite a lot to like about Yes God Yes. The first is, of course, the main actress who does carry a good part of the movie as it follows her character Alice and is from her point of view from the things she sees and showing the feelings that she has as well as the confusion of the things she encounters plus the dilemma of what is right and wrong when it comes to being faithful to her religious practice while following her own newly discovered urges. In that sense, Natalia Dyer does a fantastic job. To be fair, I did watch this movie because I wanted to see Natalia Dyer in something other than Nancy on Stranger Things (review) and it being a really different character from I Believe in Unicorns (review). The role feels really natural for her. There are some rather awkward moments but it is fittingly and believable for her character as well especially in her reactions and facial expressions.

Aside from her character, the other character of focus would be the character of Father Murphy, played by Timothy Simons who pretty much tries to constantly lecture and nudge Alice onto the right path especially as he tiptoes around the whole rumor that he’s heard of. His character is really on point as it does have a turning point and the dialogue between Father Murphy and Alice does shift and develop over the course of the film. There are some other characters of note that come along and add to the same effect but some of them feel not as important or worth a mention.

Overall, Yes God Yes is a really fun movie. The overall message is great and the take it uses and execution works pretty well. The movie isn’t long so is well-paced also. There are some little issues especially with the interaction with some other characters but whether you find it comedic or not is going to depend on what type of humor you’re into. For myself, some of the comedic parts landed and some of it wasn’t so much that it was funny but the part still felt relevant to the whole story. I’d say that this one is definitely a fun one to watch.

Double Feature: Eighth Grade (2018) & Tramps (2016)

Welcome to the next double feature! This time, I’ve paired up the 2018 coming of age teen movie Eighth Grade and the 2016 romance/comedy Netflix film, Tramps. Let’s check it out!

Eighth Grade (2018)

Director (and writer): Bo Burnham

Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere

An introverted teenage girl tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school. – IMDB

Being in high school is hard. Between feeling invisible and trying to fit in and still being yourself, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) runs her own Youtube channel where there aren’t a lot of viewers but she talks about how to fit in and the many issues of being a teenager in high school without actually really knowing what she’s talking about as her persona in her Youtube is rather opposite from her real life situation as the film fits those parallels rather well. Its how the story is executed using her real life and how she shares her thoughts on almost a textbook version of how to face issues in high school or teenager that builds up her character really well. Adding in the relationship that she has with her dad where she’s rather annoyed at times or reluctant to share her thoughts with him, the teenage girl character is very believable. What also works well is the subtlety of the teenage girl’s change as she encounters different situations that as a coming of age story, gives her a revelation but not before having some kind of emotional “meltdown”. That scene being probably one of the most powerful in the film.

With that said, Elsie Fisher delivers a wonderful role. Being able to carry a lot of the movie especially since her introverted personality does make this film centered a lot around her actions and decisions plus what she says to those around her in order to try to be more accepted or noticed. As she moves through being forced to go to parties that is invited by a parent or trying to get the attention of the boy that she likes by pretending or trying to open herself up more to the other girls in the grade to hopefully earn their friendship, her story is a lot more sad as the whole movie almost feels like not much happens and yet while nothing happens, Kayla goes through a lot of change from her reaction or her emotions and the way she talks or ever communicates with her dad. Its such a well-crafted character that I really connected with (especially since I was also an introverted teenage girl once).

Prior to this film, I’ve only seen a couple of Bo Burnham’s stand-up comedy show which I do enjoy his humor especially since he is younger so the bits are more related to a younger perspective. With Eighth Grade, the script and directing is pretty good overall. In many ways, it does capture the teenage life and to have it unravel over a week as Kayla gets ready to end eighth grade for high school, it almost is relatable to moving from high school to college for us as our middle school to high school didn’t include a graduation ceremony. It does have a rather satisfying ending especially as she starts being able to face up to those who don’t respect her and befriend those who seem to be more worth her time. In some ways, Eighth Grade does feel a little different to how a lot of coming of age films are and yet perhaps because it feels almost a little more subtle and quiet that the moments at the end do pack a punch.

Tramps (2016)

Director (and writer): Adam Leon

Cast: Callum Turner, Grace Van Patten, Michal Vondel, Mike Birbiglia, Margaret Colin, Louis Cancelmi

A young man and woman find love in an unlikely place while carrying out a shady deal. – IMDB

One day adventures (or even compact in a weekend) between two characters are probably one of my favorite types of films. The best example would be movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which takes that concept and gives a great film that takes the audience for an adventure through a city. On one hand , it creates a simple human relationship and focuses on the “chemistry” between the two characters and doesn’t overcomplicate with too many side characters other than through other dialogue or quick scenes. On the other hand, it usually has a certain “travel” through a city element as it quickly moves from one location to the next.

The premise has these two characters, Danny and Ellie being caught chasing after a wrongly swapped briefcase after an unfamiliar task goes wrong when Danny helps his brother when he held at the police station. There are some scenes with the other characters which pads out the backstory of the importance of the briefcase. The areas they explore isn’t exactly a travel heavy premise as its not landmarks (or at least I’m unfamiliar with it). Of course, it does highlight the difference of lifestyles that these two are used to versus the person they followed to find back the suitcase which is in a more upper class suburban neighborhood.

Danny and Ellie couldn’t be more different however, they both learn about their “trapped” life and how this job means for them and slowly builds trust and coordination for each other as they face each obstacle.The way these two work together are actually quite funny especially Danny’s reaction when he realizes he swapped the wrong briefcase. The interaction between the two really being a big highlight in the film. There are some comedic points that land rather well which also helps the story plus the whole execution is decently paced.

Overall, Tramps is a feel-good movie. Its simple in story, characters and execution but the two characters are charming to follow along and they do have their own sort of adventure which brings them closer together. Danny and Ellie played by Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten respectively, are definitely enjoyable. I’d definitely say that this is a hidden gem in terms of Netflix films.

Moxie (2021)

Moxie (2021)

Director: Amy Poehler

Cast: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Nico Hiraga, Sabrina Haskett, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy 16-year-old finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution. – IMDB

Adapted from the 2015 novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu (which I’ve never read), Moxie is a story about a group of high school girls finding their voice to speak up for the double standards faced with girls, making this a rather type of coming of age story. Its not focused particularly on love but much like other stories, its finding themselves but having the courage to also own up to their own choices, making not too different from other coming of age story in terms of execution however in its theme, it does speak clear on various real issues that girls may face in high school or as they are growing up and even has a reveal on an issue in the film that reminded me of the 2015 documentary called The Hunting Ground.

Female empowerment and the inequality that is present in many places is something that definitely needs to be addressed. In this case, empowering younger girls to speak up about their discomforts is a good place to start as they could be viewed as preys to bigger issues in the future, probably one of the strongest conversations from the film between main lead Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) as they discuss how to fit into the school by avoiding and laying low and accepting the status quo but the latter feels like there shouldn’t be a need to hide herself and just be who she is without being bothered. As a standpoint of the issue it wants to show, Moxie definitely picks a good topic and even showing it through girls teaming up to stand up for what is right and against the status quo. It all makes for some good moments in the film.

When looking at the characters though, at times it feels like there are issues of character development and possibly something that seems to affect the whole execution. Yet again, I haven’t read the source material so its all based on the movie as its own story and not an adaptation. For one, the character of Vivian, while has the right motives and a decent character development also creates some mixed feelings especially near the end when there’s a turning point which causes her character to have a certain “volcano eruption” moment. In some ways, it fits the age of her character and probably the inner struggles she has with the whole situation and just finding the courage to stand up and possibly talking before thinking. However, there’s something about her character that I haven’t quite pinpoint that seems to be a little off for myself. It might also be that the story itself feels like the flow of events is a little odd. There are some good and effective moments and even manages to gather in the different sides from different girls and their backgrounds and what holds them back. Every girl has their own story.

The movie also highlights the school environment rather well, whether its the uncomfortable teachers in face of the sensitive topic or the principal who is afraid to make certain situations too big that it affects the school reputation. This leads certain jock students to think that they can do whatever they want including making others feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps one of the things that makes this feel very close to reality is the ranking of girls or categorizing them which suitably is the catalyst of the situation. There is some props that need to be given to Patrick Schwarzenegger who does deliver a very convincing role as the “bad guy” and perfectly dislikeable.

Overall, Moxie is a good coming of age story. What works here is definitely the issue it wants to highlight and the message that it delivers. There are some issues of execution affecting a bit of the character and pacing however, the whole girl rebellion is one that definitely is worthy a watch as some of these issues in high school may carry on to bigger things and deserves to be seen. If anything, this movie has made me want to give the source material a read to see how it is similar or different.

Double Feature: A Simple Favor (2018) & Dumplin’ (2018)

Next double feature is here and we’re doing a 2018 film double feature. Honestly, it was fairly unplanned since this one was more for the focused on the female cast on hand. The first is a dark comedy thriller A Simple Favor and the second is Netflix coming of age comedy Dumplin’.

Let’s check it out!

A Simple Favor (2018)

Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Henry Golding, Dustin Milligan

Stephanie is a single mother with a parenting vlog who befriends Emily, a secretive upper-class woman who has a child at the same elementary school. When Emily goes missing, Stephanie takes it upon herself to investigate. – IMDB

* Originally published on Movies and Tea – Friday Film Club*

Based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor is a dark comedy thriller about a mommy vlogger who befriends one of the other moms who ends up mysteriously disappearing after asking her to pick her son after school. Using the power of her followers and as a form of journal, she tries to track down her friend and eventually find out what happened to her. 

Starring in the main roles as the mommy vlogger Stephanie is Anna Kendrick while her elegant friend Emily is portrayed by Blake Lively. A lot of the charm of the movie is how it is executed as a fluctuation between the past interactions and the context of their friendship and how their conversations expose their characters, especially that of Stephanie, both having elements that break out of how they are perceived by the people around them while contrasting it with the present search after her disappearance and eventual death which leads to Stephanie trying to figure out what happened while being caught up in it herself. 

Anna Kendrick has always been quite a flexible character as she started off in Pitch Perfect and takes up comedic roles like Mr. Right and now, this one takes it one step further as she catches those dark comedy points really great especially in her dialogue which brings in a bit of embarrassment and unexpected elements that brings out some laugh but still keeps the movie fairly suspenseful. Blake Lively’s Emily is a blunt character, not the conventional polite mom but a powerhouse elegant girl who says what comes to mind and feels secretive but also manipulative which makes her disappearance feel not unexpected but rather more of a mystery of what secrets she is hiding. 

A Simple Favor has the same feeling and tells the kind of story like Gone Girl but perhaps a different angle as it takes a more dark comedy angle while the other is more of a pure thriller. The twist and the story/script all work pretty well as it watches a character feel like she is a naive small town girl just trying to do the best mom she can be even though in reality, both female characters are really  not as perfect as they seem to be whether in their perspectives or the people around them. Not to mention that it has a lovely soundtrack. Its not exactly very complex but it has a good balance between having a decent twist and mystery to fulfill the thriller element while also delivering some great dark comedy. A Simple Favor is simply entertaining and fun. 

Dumplin’ (2018)

Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Harold Perrineau, Ginger Minj, Sam Pancake, Hilliary Begley

Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town. – IMDB

A true Netflix gem is what Dumplin’ is. I can’t say how many times that I’ve watched it and rewatched this film at this point. There’s so much to love from the coming of age story to hitting those comedy points really well and even giving me that extra push from the Hideaway location with Dolly Parton drag queens that made me go and watch Rupaul’s Drag Queen because I’ve never seen it before. Of course, that’s besides the point. On that note, I don’t listen to Dolly Parton a lot nor am I mega knowledgeable about her music except for the really popular ones but I love the Dolly Parton soundtrack that it uses. Even though I don’t know about her sayings either, the movie puts a lot of focus on all the positive message that she delivers which becomes an encouraging element for Willowdean’s character.

What makes coming of age films great are usually the different types of relationships including that with facing up to yourself. For Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), the story is from her point of view as she deals with a feeling that her mother (Jennifer Aniston) is ashamed of her body because she prides herself on being the 1991 Miss Teen Bluebonnet and her beauty pageant which makes her make fun of the pageant girls. At the same time, it brings in the element of friendship as she ends up having an argument with her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) that leads her to making friends with 2 other girls, Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and Millie (Maddie Baillio) that are not the typical pageant girls in the heart of breaking the norm. Its all about finding the courage and doing the impossible for them as they realize all the work that goes into participating in the pageant and the shining points of the pageant as they describe is a “team sport”. Then there’s the extension to finding courage and committing to being different much like Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy taught her and the friends she makes at the Hideaway help her remember. The whole Hideaway segments and the pageant segments are some of the best parts of the film.

If there was one thing that seemed to not fit so well was probably the love interest character that didn’t seem to be needed. It was there to emphasize her discomfort with herself and that she had to come to terms with herself. At the same time, while the character of Bo (Luke Benward) was okay overall, he didn’t exactly add a whole lot to the film itself. The movie was much more about the girls and ladies than anything else. Plus, its a different sort of movie that shows this pageant being filled with girls who don’t have it out for each other but are actually rather nice about the whole thing.

FNC 2020: Cocoon (2020)

Cocoon (Kokon, 2020)

Director (and writer): Leonie Krippendorff

Cast: Lena Urzendowsky, Jella Haase, Lena Klenke, Elina Vildanova, Franz Hagn, Kim Riedle

One long, hot summer, 14-year-old Nora spends most of her time with her sister and her sister’s best friend. While the two older girls run around with the crowd of boys who flock around them, shy Nora stays meekly in the background. When she meets anti-conformist Romy, a girl unlike anyone she’s ever met, unexpected desires take hold of her. – Festival du Nouveau Cinema

Cocoon is a 2020 German coming of age film about a 14 year old girl who starts figuring out who she is despite facing the different voices around her as she hangs out with her sister and her friends through an exceptionally hot summer. Cocoon feels similar to movies like Call Me By Your Name and last year’s FNC movie Mickey and the Bear as she confronts both her sexual orientation, first love and change in her own body while having some of her own family issues to deal with both her sister and her mother. Cocoon is two fold as she relates to the caterpillar that she has in a jar which over the course of the film eventually disappears and reappears as a butterfly by the end. It creates a nice parallel of her emotions over this snippet of her life as she toughens up to embrace who she is and be brave enough to walk her own path.

For main character Nora, its a slice of life about this hot summer in the neighborhood and city where she lives. She narrates segments of videos from her cellphone that recaps what happens and her feelings all shown in vertical phone clips perspective and acts like chapters to this summer. She starts off as something of a wallflower as she lurks in the background, having to follow her sister, Jule and her friends because of her mother being rather uncaring for them. Her sister and her friends are fawning over boys and how to lose weight to look like models and generally be cool and slightly reckless. For her, she’s changing alone and has no one to talk to about this when she meets Romy, a girl that she starts to have a friendship/relationship with but with resistance from her sister but opens up her feelings for the first time to be herself and accept her differences.

In many ways, Nora is a great coming of age character as she doesn’t just face finding herself but the movie also makes a great effort in telling about her struggles at home especially when faced with being the one that seems be okay with her mother’s lack of caring in comparison to her sister that seems to do a lot of things that tries to get her mother’s attention and she is there to pick up the pieces. It showcases her multifaceted relationships in all of its dysfunctions: parent-child, sibling and sisterhood, friendship and especially with herself. Lena Urzendowsky portrays Nora in a wonderful way that gives her quite a change as she moves from her introvert and outsider in social settings from the beginning to the end where she becomes comfortable in her own skin despite the things she overcomes throughout the film. The story isn’t as simple and normal but in a lot of the characters and their underlying traits are portrayed in their actions shot through only the eyes of Nora.

I’ve always had some issues with German films especially in their pacing elements but Cocoon is really good as the execution of the phone snippets as chapter breaks helps a lot in drawing Nora’s inner feelings with the quiet and introvert character that breaks out of her own cocoon through the process. The parallels are done well and the story is well-written that makes it all come together nicely.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
by: Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan.. But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words… And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind? – Goodreads

Playing on the world of fanfiction, Fangirl highlights a college girl who finds solace in her protected world of her twin sister and her popularity as her Internet self of writing fan fiction on a Harry-Potter-esque sort of world except its called Simon Snow. College brings its own challenges and a different perspective of what she needs to embrace as she slowly steps out of her comfort zone because of her sister’s desire to have her own experiences. New friends, new environment, new expectations and somehow Cath is still holding onto what makes her comfortable and its weird for those around her. This is pretty much a coming of age story and strip it away from its fanfiction premise, its actually fairly common however, Rainbow Rowell gives Cath as well as the other characters very contrasting personalities that complement each other really well.

Perhaps where the story structure seems a little less flowing is in the Simon Snow segments that get sandwiched in between the chapters, which are short and mostly draw some kind of parallel to the reality on hand but because its so similar to Harry Potter, Simon Snow itself almost feels like a fanfiction. Putting that aside, the world of fanfiction is portrayed fairly well and in the sense, those side segments of Simon Snow fiction from its actual author contrasting with those as fanfiction pieces written by Cath which draws the key element of what fanfiction is and is what brings the unique elements to the story of how Cath crafts her version of Simon Snow’s life on the foundation of something built by someone else’s world.

What is the best draw of Fangirl does go down to the witty cast of characters. Cath has this sassy attitude that is unique to her introvert self with her own set of baggage stemming from her family and in contrast to a clash and friction in her relationship with her twin Wren as well as slowly stepping out of her shell with her roommate and boyfriend who both also have quite distinctive personalities. The dialogue written between these characters are entertaining and colorful and a lot of fun, packed with laugh out loud moments. It highlights a lot of the different types of people that we meet in college as the world expands and there are different perspectives on things that were once familiar. It looks into different elements of Cath’s life that highlights why she is the way she is.

With a fun writing style and some well-crafted characters as well as dynamic power of dialogue that brings out each of these characters even more, Fangirl is a fun little dive. While striping away its fanfiction background, its really a fairly normal sort of coming of age story, there is still something engaging about it that gives it that unique light. I’m not quite sure whether its the fanfiction since that didn’t play too much into reading experience but more the fact that its the way that Rainbow Rowell crafts her story and the way she writes it that lifts this story to another level. I do however think that the first two-thirds of the story is a little better written than the last act that seemed to fall a little more flat. Overall, its still pretty great.

Double Feature: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019) & Little Women (2019)

Next double feature is here as I worked through some more rentals. The first is the sequel of 47 Meters Down called 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. The second is Greta Gerwig’s directed adaptation of book of the same name, Little Women. Let’s check it out!

47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)

47 meters down uncaged

Director: Johannes Roberts

Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Rose Stallone, John Corbett, Nia Long, Brec Bassinger, Davi Santos, Khylin Rhambo

Four teen girls diving in a ruined underwater city quickly learn they’ve entered the territory of the deadliest shark species in the claustrophobic labyrinth of submerged caves.- IMDB

Let’s start off that this is pretty much a new story from 47 Meters Down. For those who have seen 47 Meters Down, there really isn’t any room to do a sequel with those characters or that storyline. While shark movies are rather entertaining and I did enjoy 47 Meters Down in several aspects and premise, lets just say that a sequel wasn’t exactly something that was expected or needed but it happened.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged takes a new perspective. This time around, it goes into a cave diving adventure where these four girls go to explore the underwater Mayan ruins but it ends up trapping them in after a sudden realization that there were blind sharks living in these caves. Its something of an opposite experience than 47 Meters Down. Uncaged has a lot more sharks and while there are some questionable CG effects like the screaming fish, the blind sharks is a fairly fresh concept. Sharks hunting only by sound and being able to blend into the background of the dark murky waters that the girls find them in. The whole course of finding their way out and having a lot of cast gives the movie a higher death count, more people to be endanger. With that said, its a faster paced movie and a much more simple and direct sort of element. It takes some of the good premise elements of the first like survival with decreasing oxygen tanks to the light elements and flares versus sharks and applies to a bigger scope.

If you look at the cast, its not exactly a well-known one. However, there are some second generation actresses like Jamie Foxx’s daughter Corinne Foxx and Sylvester Stallone’s daughter Sistine Rose Stallone. The characters themselves are linear and one dimensional. There is a little bit of family elements here as two step-sisters face this labyrinth together to try and get out. There’s also John Corbett who stars as one of the girl’s dad who is the one who is exploring these caves as their current project and the reason that they are in this location in the first place.

Overall, its an okay shark movie. Its paced quicker with a lot more sharks than its predecessor. Its more direct and less psychological. There are some tension built from this specific location of underwater caves that also brings in the frightening feeling of claustrophobia every once in a while. The sharks have really good designs of their scarred body probably from navigating the tight spaces in the area and how they have biologically changed because of being trapped in this dark location for such a long time. The general concept makes enough sense even if some of the computer graphics isn’t done well but Johannes Roberts does get some nice cinematography in that makes up for a part of that.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women

Director (and adapted screenplay): Greta Gerwig

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep

Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women, each determined to live life on her own terms. – IMDB

One of the classics that I haven’t read before is Little Women. I have a general idea of the source material but I’ve never actually read the novel nor have I seen the 1994 film adaptation. This viewing is solely based on this movie as its own film. With that said, Little Women is set up in a structure that I rather like. In one way, its main focus is on Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan and her determination to be a writer despite not quite able to accept the criticism but willing to sacrifice to have her work published anonymously. Its has something of an (semi-autobiographical nature where who we see as Jo March feels like she’s telling her story while also having this breaking reality moments at times where we see how things actually went and the way the story is told based on the pressures from her editor and whatnot.

Little Women is about the different girls in each of the March sisters who seek something different in life. They each grow up together and much like any siblings have their own issues and one sacrifices more than the other. As they grow up, their age and being able to do things the others can’t do all come into play as all kinds of values come into play. Through the actions and decisions of each of the sisters, it crafts each of their characters. The focus is rather heavily on the sisters finding their value and what they each value that leads them in different paths. Certain things break them apart and yet other things will bring them together. In the path of growing up, they sacrifice things and other things pass them by and some just fade into regret and moving on. Its all part of life. Something about Greta Gerwig’s structure for this story works really well. Its a subtle and endearing story about this sisterhood. While some characters fall into the background, they each have their own purpose whether its the mother, played brilliantly by Laura Dern that teaches her daughters to be selfless and willing them to have a mind of their own or its the youngest sister who has a dream but with her illness brings together the family in the end. There’s something that pieces each of these events together.

The focus is a lot on Jo March, Amy March and their neighbor/family friend, Laurie played by Timothée Chalamet. It seems that Greta Gerwig sure loves to work with Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet and always sees them as the impossible pairing. Their relationship/friendship is something of the other way around from Lady Bird (review), which I thought was pretty genius to cast them and give their characters an opposing sort of character and giving these two a nice dynamic. Little Women is a pretty great adaptation that executed really well and all the characters portrayed incredibly charming and with a good deal of depth and purpose. Its a great coming of age period drama.

That’s it for this double feature!
Have you seen these two films? Thoughts?

The Half Of It (2020)

The Half of It (2020)

the half of it

Director (and writer): Alice Wu

Cast: Leah Lewis, Alexxis Lemire, Daniel Diemer, Becky Ann Baker, Catherine Curtin, Collin Chou, Wolfgang Novogratz

When smart but cash-strapped teen Ellie Chu agrees to write a love letter for a jock, she doesn’t expect to become his friend – or fall for his crush. – IMDB

In the mass of Netflix Originals that gets released in a year, every once in a while, we find some hidden gems. While coming of age films are rather formulaic in many ways, The Half of It is unique in its own way as it packs in a lot of layers of teen issues altogether as well as immigrant family struggles. All these elements combines with a balanced execution focus on coming of age mixed in with bits of romance and friendship. If we think about this in similarities, the story here is similar to Sierra Burgess is a Loser (review), except you trade out physical insecurities with  some other issues like LGBT and immigrant family issues. The things that stand out in Sierra Burgess actually work really well here as well, like the friendship element between Ellie and Paul as well as her interaction with her father. 

The Half of It really works because of its cast that brings to life these well-written characters. Each of them presenting their different characteristics in a believable and charming manner, even behind their many awkward moments which adds to the humor. Leah Lewis plays the main character of Ellie Chu who keeps to herself and breaks her rules when she decides to help “edit” (but really write) a love letter for Paul (Daniel Diemer), a jock with rather undesirable writing skills, because she coincidentally needed the money. And yet, sometimes these perfect coincidences presents itself as a blessing in disguise when she bonds this unexpected friendship both with Paul and as the voice for Paul to appeal to Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Its the awkwardness moments that work well here whether its Ellie and Paul or when Paul interacts with Aster on their little dates. At the same time, like mentioned before, one of the highlights is between Ellie and her father (Collin Chou) who usually is known for his villainous and action roles in Asian cinema. The father element plays a decent part in the story and it makes this story always centered around Ellie which makes it truly her coming of age story and never loses sight of that.

The Half Of It might seem like a familiar tale in its execution but it also is unique because of the different issues that it tackles. Perhaps its because its about a Chinese immigrant family that it relates better to myself that it also strikes a chord and the family element here plays out really well. Or perhaps its the portrayal of Ellie Chu that really is quite appealing even though she doesn’t seem to find the same confidence in herself but actually finds it as she confides in Paul while helping him subconsciously building their friendship. While there is an unrequited love element there and teen romance that never quite gets a lot of resolution, it seems like the story is never quite about that but actually manages to create a fairly positive and sweet ending despite of it. All these elements makes The Half Of It such a charming coming of age movie. While I’ve never seen Alice Wu’s previous work Saving Face, I do hope that it won’t take her over a decade before making a new movie as she has quite a decent vision as a director and writer that it would be interesting to see what other stories she will tell in the future.